Director: Ava DuVernay
Starring: Jharrel Jerome, Asante Blackk, Jovan Adepo, Michael K. Williams, Logan Marshall-Green, Joshua Jackson, Blair Underwood, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Aunjanue Ellis, Marsha Stephanie Blake, and Kylie Bunbury
Watching Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, I was angry.
I didn’t just sigh from my sofa, frustrated at the dark history of racism in the United States, I was furious as if it happened a week ago.
It follows the lives of the famous Central Park Five.
Five black and Latino boys were falsely convicted for the violent rape and assault of a white woman in Central Park, New York City, in 1989.
Those who were around in the 1980s and 1990s might remember the beloved Donald Trump campaigning for their execution.
Not only do we see how poorly they are treated in the interrogation room, but in court, in prison, and life afterwards.
Clearly, I’m not the only one who was angry at this program. Linda Fairstein, now 72 years old, has objected to her characterisation as a bigot to the point of suing Netflix.
However, despite the inconsistencies in the case, Fairstein insists that they were guilty in some way or another as they were allegedly part of a group of 30 boys who engaged in some violent behaviour.
Guilty of some sort of violence, what kind?
Why so angry when watching When They See Us?
Regardless, I have an inkling that Fairstein’s anger isn’t quite the same as my anger.
I feel that Fairstein’s anger comes from the grievance of her behaviour from decades ago catching up to her in a light that’s unflattering.
My anger comes from the issues that the show brings up that are still relevant today, despite the trial being over 30 years ago.
I think in film and television, we have seen an unhealthy portrayal of injustice that’s almost pornographic.
We get a kick out of it in two ways: we get the initial burst of indignance at how badly the victim is treated, and then we get the gratification of watching the perpetrator suffer for it in turn.
We get to shake our heads at the past and then congratulate ourselves for the present that’s so far removed from violence and abuse that we watched half an hour ago.
Ava DuVernay does a fantastic job of denying us that shortcut.
An Ava DuVernay masterclass
All throughout the series, new issues are brought up which spark a new rage with a life of its own.
From the initial interrogations that squeezed confessions out of distressed teenagers to the racially charged language in the courtroom to live after prison, we watch a myriad of problems that are greater than these false convictions.
When is justice served for Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam?
Other than a $41 million settlement as compensation for the sentences they served (which ranged between 5 and 15 years) DuVernay makes it very clear that the damage has been done and those men will never get their adolescence back.
Raymond Santana finds himself with a new family who’s hostile towards him the second he returns home, and his conviction is thrown at him whenever his stepmother wants to hurt him.
Santana finds himself falling back into crime as the only jobs that are available to him are precarious, irregular jobs that can’t provide him the life he wants.
Yusef Salaam holds onto his faith in Islam to get through juvenile prison but his goal of becoming a teacher is destroyed because of his conviction.
Antron McCray struggles to get back into dating and watches his estranged father become sicker and sicker without being able to communicate with him.
And then we have Korey Wise…
DuVernay’s focus on Korey Wise was the most heart-wrenching episode when we consider the impossibility of America’s retributive prison system and the Wise’s struggle to claw through an adult prison that is unbearably cruel.
Wise endures long periods of time in solitary, is often the victim of other prisoners, and eventually refuses to face a parole hearing that will not hear him out until he accepts responsibility for a crime that he didn’t commit.
We see the classic ‘God Sees the Truth but Waits’ plotline for Korey Wise as eventually, another prisoner confesses to having committed the original crimes that put Korey in prison.
With astounding integrity, Korey is not hostile towards the prisoner, but instead focuses on bettering himself until he is released.
DuVernay doesn’t just let us glimpse into the pain that is inflicted on the boys, she demonstrates to us the astonishing fortitude and resilience they all had.
For Yusef, it was Islam that kept him going through his various trials, whereas for Korey it was his mother’s love and his memories with a high-school sweetheart.
I love that DuVernay makes us see their complex humanity, which makes the false conviction even more infuriating.
She really hammers it home at the end when we see the faces of the real Central Park Five with information about what they have gone on to achieve.
We don’t get to thank our lucky stars that this was decades ago because these men are still alive, most of whom are fighting against the same problems that derailed their lives.
So, why is this the perfect type of anger?
Because DuVernay reminds us that this was real, and those who were responsible for the prosecution and slander of the Central Park Five are not only alive and well but thriving.
Fairstein was able to build herself a career as a crime novelist after her work in law enforcement.
And the leader of the campaign to sentence these boys to death, lamenting that a juvenile prison sentenced had snatched children’s blood from his savouring mouth, is currently the President of the United States!
DuVernay reminds us that the injustice didn’t start and end in the courtroom.
From the racially charged language to the age-old trope of innocent, lily-white women versus the looming sexual threat of black men were all used to abuse five innocent boys.
Life in prison, and rehabilitation after conviction are problems that don’t have a solution like settlements and apologies.
The rage that DuVernay inspires needs to be harnessed and directed towards improving the lives of prisoners, ex-convicts, and being more aware of the racial discrimination and prejudice that is used to cut corners in our judicial systems.
Moon River was the song used to see the series off as well as the song of choice of one of the adult prisoners, making the idea of true justice seem like a far-off, dreamlike utopia.
But as we look at the faces of the real victims of the Central Park Five case, we see that compensation and rehabilitation can be achieved, and accountability can be held to the perpetrators.
DuVernay’s powerful series could be the heart-wrenchingly humane series that we need to keep that thirst for fairness going that has been fading from our feeds.
What do you make of this review?
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